CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois and Indiana last played each other in 2013. The Illini and Hoosiers combined to go a woeful 14-36 in the Big Ten over the next three seasons and this year has brought much of the same.
Indiana visits Illinois on Saturday with both teams still looking for their first conference win.
The Hoosiers (3-6, 0-6 Big Ten) harbor hopes of making it to a bowl game for a third straight season if they can win their final three games. How big would that be? Indiana hasn’t won its last three regular-season games since 1946, the year after Bo McMillin led Indiana to the first of the school’s two Big Ten titles.
After going 0-3 against top-five foes and 0-5 against ranked teams, Indiana faces Illinois, then returns home against Rutgers (4-5) and visits rival Purdue (4-5). Indiana hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
“We all understand where we are and what we need to do,” coach Tom Allen said. “There is a sense of urgency that I believe we have to have and we will have.”
The Illini (2-7, 0-6) will try to snap a seven-game skid and coach Lovie Smith said he believes the next step for his young team is finishing. Illinois trailed Purdue 16-10 in the fourth quarter last week before giving up the final 13 points of the game.
“We’ve played pretty good football for moments at a time,” Smith said. “But not being able to put together a full four quarters of football has really hurt us.”
Despite the loss, Smith said freshman quarterback Cam Thomas has taken a step in the right direction after making his first start. He completed half of his passes for 159 yards, but picked up 30 yards on the ground and had his first game all season without an interception.
“Some of the plays where we had success came from him breaking tackles,” Smith said. “Hopefully, he’ll take another step this week.”
The Hoosiers have allowed only 179 passing yards per game and 14 touchdown passes all season. While the Big Ten’s third-ranked defense has kept games close, Allen has experimented with two quarterbacks, Peyton Ramsey and Richard Lagow. Each has thrown for over 1,000 yards this season, but Ramsey (leg) didn’t play last week and his status for Illinois was uncertain.
If Ramsey doesn’t play, Lagow will probably make his sixth start of the season and will likely be backed up by Nick Tronti, a true freshman the Hoosiers want to redshirt.
NICKERSON ON LEAVE: Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is on leave from the team after his mother died unexpectedly last weekend. Smith said he was unsure if Nickerson would be back in time for the game but encouraged him to take all the time he needs.
“When anything happens family-wise, our policy, what I insist on them doing, is taking care of your family,” Smith said. “The rest of us will pick up the slack if anything else needs to be done here.”
NFL CONNECTION: Indiana offensive coordinator Mike Debord and Smith spent three seasons together in the NFL. When Smith was the coach of the Chicago Bears, Debord was his tight ends coach from 2010-12. Even though that was five years ago, Debord still believes some of Smith’s philosophies haven’t changed.
“System-wise, I’ve seen a lot of things he did as a (NFL) head coach,” Debord said. “He has carried that on to Illinois.”
RUNNING BACK RETURN: Senior Kendrick Foster is the Illini’s main running back again. He started in a Week 1 win over Ball State, but in the following weeks he lost his starting role to running backs Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner. Both are now injured and so are Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin, leaving Foster as one of the few healthy backs on the team. He will most likely make his third consecutive start.
ON THE BRINK: Simmie Cobbs Jr. could crack the top 10 on two of Indiana’s career receiving lists this weekend, in front of his home state fans. Cobbs, who attended high school in Oak Park, Illinois, needs seven catches to pass Eddie Beaty and Kofi Hughes (132) for No. 10 in receptions and 66 yards to pass Jade Butcher (1,876) for 10th in all-time yards. Cobbs also can tie Butcher and Cody Latimer for No. 4 in school history with a seventh career 100-yard game. And Cobbs still has a year of eligibility remaining.